- 33rd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
Two family plays, two portraits of America, two productions rooted in Kentucky—that’s one way to describe the offerings of the 2009 Humana Festival of New American Plays, which stuck with its formula of recent years by producing six full-length pieces, a slate of ten-minute plays, and an anthology project featuring the 2008–09 Acting Apprentice Company. As if to reflect US theatre’s ongoing struggle to emerge from its doldrums and reinvent itself, half of Humana’s six full-length pieces were not plays in the conventional sense, but theatrical collages of word, image, and music. Two of these three were, in effect, spoken-word performances.
Ameriville is the newest creation of Universes, the New York hip-hop theatre company that gained national attention five years ago with its tour de force Slanguage. Working this time with director Chay Yew, the writer-performers of Universes—Gamal Abdel Chasten, Mildred Ruiz, William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja, and Steven Sapp—combined poetry, song, storytelling, gesture, character sketches, and a heavy backbeat to create a kind of street-level State of the Union address. The piece starts off in post- Katrina New Orleans with a long, rousing sequence that evokes both the devastation of the flood and the broken city left in its wake. It then moves out into “Ameriville” to take notice of other social ills: gentrification, hate speech and racial intolerance, a dysfunctional health-care system, even global warming. The New Orleans suite is more focused and, as a result, more affecting, but what unifies the entire piece is the commanding presence of the four dynamic performers. Weaving snatches of nursery rhymes, work songs, and pop tunes into their own gritty lyrics and hard-driving rhythms, they generated a multilayered, percussive rush of vocal sound that was rich and inspiring.
If Ameriville is urban, angry, and muscular in spirit, Wild Blessings is pastoral, patient, and relaxed. Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) artistic director Marc Masterson directed the piece, adapting it for the stage with dramaturg Adrien-Alice Hansel from the writings of Kentucky poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry. The “celebration” of Berry’s life and literature took the form of a series of poems, spoken or sung by a cast of four actors, backed by original music from hammered dulcimer player Malcolm Dalglish, and selected to display the central themes of Berry’s work: the sacredness of place; reverence for nature; an economy based on thrift, not theft; and humility and love. The performances were earnest, the staging unpretentious, and the poetry’s gentle rhythms, flashes of humor, and pacific tones [End Page 620] made for a happy event. But the strategic decision to augment the poems not just with music but also a steady stream of photographic and video projections by designer Donna Lawrence yielded mixed results. The projected images, mainly bucolic in nature, were exquisite, but their visual beauty impinged on the mental images conjured by the poems themselves, which needed more time to resonate. In “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself),” Berry writes: “Make a poem that does not disturb / the silence from which it came.” Wild Blessings would have done well to follow his advice.
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Charles Mee, Anne Bogart, and the SITI Company returned to Humana in 2009 to create Under Construction, the third piece in their American Museum series. bobrauschenbergamerica (2001) drew its inspiration from Robert Rauschenberg and his famous combine paintings; Hotel Cassiopeia (2006) plumbed the psyche of Joseph Cornell, best known for his evocative box constructions. Under Construction had two, competing points of departure: the midtwentieth- century Americana of Norman Rockwell, and the early twenty-first-century installations of Jason Rhoades. Its conceit, announced by the title and a welcoming prologue, is that a miscellaneous sample of scenes from a larger, incomplete work is being presented for the audience’s enjoyment. What follows juxtaposes texts from the 1950s...